To Sam Byram it was all about money. All about the readies. Nothing to do with West Ham United’s standing in the Premier League, their relocation to London’s Olympic Stadium or the thought of debuting at home to Manchester City this weekend. And nothing to do with Leeds United’s directionless years as a Championship club.
Byram would be fooling no-one by denying that a rise in salary was nice, but Everton don’t pay peanuts and when the choice was put in front of him, he took it soberly. Everton have Seamus Coleman at right-back, now and for the foreseeable. West Ham are doing with James Tomkins what Leeds have done with Scott Wootton. Byram chose and made himself look like a player choosing to play.
Money was at the root of his fall-out with Massimo Cellino, the factor which drove Cellino’s hopeless attempt to lower his salary, but United’s owner is deluded if he thinks that Byram cut and ran because Leeds couldn’t pay him enough.
There is more to an offer than the value in cash terms. There is the outlook, the vision, the strategy and the credibility. There is the fundamental question, based on hard evidence, of whether a club is worth staying at.
Cellino was onto something when he claimed in September that Byram “thinks Leeds is too small for him”. Byram probably does think Leeds are too small for him but not in the way Cellino meant. Most of the players who come through United’s academy understand the club’s history and culture. Many of them grew up as supporters. They respect Leeds’ stature in the traditional sense, but they are clever enough to distinguish between reputation and the present day.
Jonathan Howson was and is a Leeds boy, a club captain in that mindset; always aware of his surroundings, always willing to front up, always a willing – if slightly overused – candidate for community events.
It was not his choice to leave in the window where Leeds decided to sell him, whatever anyone else says, but it had occurred to him by then that the time might be coming. Howson was into the last six months of his deal.
Leeds had lost their impetus in the Championship and were about to fire Simon Grayson. Ken Bates was losing the crowd. Howson had given more than 200 games to United, so he left. And left with his conscience clear.
This season was Byram’s fourth as a senior professional at Elland Road. Leeds finished 13th in his first, 15th in his second and third and were heading for a similar position in his last. He has seen three different owners – one of whom has been banned by the Football League already and stands to be banned by the Football League again – and has played under seven different coaches. Two of those survived for six competitive games. With the exception of Steve Evans, all of them have been sacked. It is natural to compare Byram and Howson, but Howson at least took with him the memories of 2010-11. The intelligence corp can separate the fallow years from the golden eras. All that Don Revie achieved is not diminished by United’s inability to follow his example, but it does not act as much of a selling point either when Leeds’ state is so anemic. Howard Wilkinson and David O’Leary weren’t only marketing a big club.
They were marketing compelling squads and ambitious chairmen (recklessly ambitious in the case of Peter Ridsdale). O’Leary could feasibly expect to sign Rio Ferdinand because Leeds had a vision to tempt him with. The history helped but it was not a solitary carrot. Byram would never dare describe Leeds as an institution as “too small for him”. He would not equate himself to Paul Reaney or Gary Kelly or pretend that his photo will hang in Elland Road in 20 years’ time. He has passed through the club and played for too short a time to be seen as anything other than a likeable, gifted right-back who got away too soon. But as it is, the club are too slow for his career: too slow to progress, too slow to expand and too slow to find their way out of the woods.
There is an argument which says a kid like Byram, bred in the academy and made by the academy, should stay and help Leeds find a way. But how long is too long and how long is long enough? Contract talks between Byram and Leeds were appallingly handled and Cellino’s idea of enforcing a wage cut was a dead-end from the start.
For him, this was a matter of finance but for Byram there was a bigger picture and Cellino can either wallow in bitterness or open his eyes to it.
The Italian could not promise promotion. At this stage he could not promise the play-offs. He could not even promise that when next season starts he will be present at Elland Road and in control. It would be strange in the circumstances, and a slight on Byram’s attitude, if a specific salary was enough to make those concerns inconsequential. On reflection, it is fair to ask if any amount of cash would have tempted Byram to tie himself to the chief mountaineer.
Robert Snodgrass nailed this debate in May 2012, at a time when his own exit was looming. “I’d love to get into the Premier League with Leeds,” he said. “The chairman (Bates) is trying to put pressure on me and he’s telling me what plans he has for the club. But they told me the same type of plans the season before and it didn’t work out so it’s hard to buy into these things again.”
Footballers think like that. Football works like that. And reality looks like that. But yes, it’s all about greed and it’s all about money. It’s all a case of how big a house you can buy. As doubtless it will be when this familiar scenario repeats itself – again.